Because I’m in such a celebratory mood due to our upcoming William Castle Blogathon, I thought I should take his memoirs off the shelf and start devouring it along with watching the fabulous documentary Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story. I just wanted to say a few words about the first few chapters of Bill Castle’s compelling life story Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul, and I’m hoping that his wonderful daughter decides to produce a serious biopic about her father’s incredibly captivating life. It would make one hell of a fascinating and titillating journey of what led up to his iconic legacy amidst some memorable figures that inhabited the glamorous and often tumultuous Hollywood of yesteryear. If our blogathon turns even one more person into a new William Castle fan, I’ll feel satisfied that I’ve done right by him.
It’s a hell of a read. From the first few chapters, you feel like Bill is an old friend on a marvelous adventure that you’re rooting for all the way. I have always been such an avid fan of his movies, and the charming way he made us all feel like we were helping participate in the process of making each thrill & chill, gimmick and diversion such a sensational part of the movie experience. That’s what mattered most to him, to entertain all of us. Even if most of his films were considered B-movies they had a lot of heart, and he always dreamed one day to do an A-List film like Hitchcock or Welles, that would garner critical acclaim.
He found the novel and obtained the rights to, ‘If I Should Die Before I Wake’, bringing it to his new friend Orson Welles at Columbia. Yet ultimately Cohn insisted on having Welles direct the story which turned into the classic Film Noir paragon with Rita Hayworth. Castle was sad about this, but ultimately knew Welles would do an incredible job and thus settled into being co-director on that film. I wonder how many people realize that he was associated with that iconic piece of noir?
Then, seeing Hitchcock’s success with Robert Bloch’s Psycho (who borrowed a little from Castle’s ballyhoo to concocted his own gimmickry to get the audience to line up around the block) Castle took writer Robb White’s gender bending psycho thriller story and turned it into Homicidal (1961) in response to Hitchcock’s ‘deviant’ genre hit. He drew from the same master of the macabre, Robert Bloch (Psycho 1960) which fueled the graphic shocker Strait-Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford once again in response to the success of Aldrich’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) Eventually Castle spotting the greatness in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby!
Purchasing the rights to Ira Levin’s script ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ a film which came the closest to elevating him from The Carnival Barker/Maestro of Schlock to Cinema Auter. He wanted so badly to direct himself but Robert Evans head of Paramount at the time insisted on having the young and wildly imaginative director Roman Polanski take the reigns.
But Bill was gracious once he saw Polanski’s vision. And so he did what he was great at and facilitated the film’s process from behind the scenes, trying to keep things moving within the studio’s budget and time constraints. Let’s just say their collaboration created one of THE most gripping pieces of film-making in cinematic history, and my favorite film of all time. Rosemary’s Baby is an irrepressible and timeless masterpiece that transcends any genre.
And I’ll talk about that in depth during the upcoming William Castle Blogathon, with my entry Back Story: What Ever Happened to William Castle’s Baby?
And I wish we hadn’t lost him at age 63. Although he started having doubts about his contribution to the art of film-making, the relevance of all his showmanship, and the fan’s lives he imprinted his trademark on, he would have seen how much of a precious legacy he left behind and how we all still gravitate to his pictures with the same enthusiasm. There’s so many of us who appreciate him and understand that there would be a gaping hole in history if he hadn’t headed out to Hollywood to follow his dream with his incomparable brand of hutzpah!
Even if you’re not familiar with William Castle’s work, you’d be surprised at how much his bigger-than-life presence had influenced Hollywood, and the actors, film-makers and writers he crossed paths with. He was beloved and still is. His stories are fascinating, real or inflated with just a little spice and embellishment about his experiences in the business. He touched so many lives with his exuberant lust for ideas and blithe spirit, always looking for that applause, just an overgrown happy kid.
I could watch his films over and over. They just never gets stale for me and the high spirited imaginings that radiate from all his pictures taps into that nostalgic adrenaline that flows through my veins.
From his first encounter with Bela Lugosi as a young man who went to see Dracula on stage repeatedly, to meeting the wonderful Everette Sloane who was working with Orson Welles in the theatre, to being suddenly thrown into the midst of great stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant when he first got to Hollywood, his life is as interesting as any good melodrama.
He ingratiated himself into working under director George Stevens on the classic Penny Serenade and actually got along with Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn who was considered to be up in the there in the ranks of ornery with Hitler and Mussolini! And he was even controlled and bullied by Joan Crawford on the set of Strait-Jacket as he struggled to appease her every whim. But he always remained gracious and kind to everybody.
So get hold of a copy of this great book, and here’s to the man who started out as an orphan in New York. A man who just didn’t fit in and was teased at camp until he showed that he had the unusual talent of being double jointed. Then he was touted as ‘The Spider’ saving him from constant beatings and turning him onto the lure of applause and circus side show ballyhoo. That endearing and infectious charm made the great Bela Lugosi, while acting in the stage production of Dracula, give him his first break in theater.
Eventually he met actor Everett Sloane and had the moxie to arrange a meeting with new sensation, Orson Welles. He impressed the artistically distilled cigar smoker so much that he convinced Welles to let him take over his Stoney Creek Theater in Connecticut while he left to film Citizen Kane.
Castle adopted the ritual of smoking a big fatty from watching Welles pace the floor with one. Castle had a ‘twinkle in his eye’ and that taste for risk-taking, pulling a play out of thin air over a long weekend. He made up a pseudonym of a famous German Playwright, gave it a German title translated into ‘Not For Children’ and got one of Germany’s top actresses Ellen Schwanneke (Madchen in Uniform) to star in it.
Ultimately he carried off a publicity stunt that went as far as sending a telegram to Germany telling Adolf Hitler himself that ‘his’ actress would not be coming back to Nazi Germany. Thanks to Bill Castle, Schwanneke became known in the press as the ‘girl who said NO to Hitler…’
That solidified the beginnings of his career and gave him the momentum that would launch him into the world of that grand ‘show business’ and into our collective hearts.
And that’s just the first few chapters…!
With love to dear Bill Castle- From Joey (MonsterGirl)